UltraRunning Magazine

Photo: Howie Stern

Beyond Running: The Art and Sacrifice of Big’s Backyard

Jared Beasley

To adequately put into words what happened in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, between a chilly Saturday morning and a blisteringly hot Wednesday evening, would be a futile attempt. None could do it justice. There was simply too much pain and triumph. The best attempt would merely be a snapshot with the contrast pushed too far—the highs too bright and the shadows too frightening. What I can say is when enough talent arrives in one place with a singular goal in mind—to push the horizon of physical and mental endurance to its absolute threshold—something akin to a Greek tragedy, a Homeric epic or the Red Wedding of Game of Thrones is likely to occur. And it did.

In short, Harvey Lewis inked his name into the annals of backyard lore. Big’s is now his course. Having either come in first or second in all his appearances there, this win after 108 hours, a new World Record and 450 miles, will most certainly be the highlight of the 47-year-old’s already prolific career. As amazing as it was, in this paradoxical endurance crucible devised by Lazarus Lake, Lewis is the only runner who didn’t find his edge. But for those who traveled thousands of miles with the words “national champion” tattooed on their souls, the same could not be said. The only way they were coming off that trail was if they were carried off. And they were.

As a journalist, I try not to get emotionally involved in races. But after three sleepless days, those walls came tumbling down in a series of adrenalized episodes. We are, after all, first and foremost, human beings.

It is clear now, as it was hazy then. It was loop 80 when Ivo Steyaert, the Belgian backyard hero, missed the third whistle. With less than a minute to get to the line, his crew looked up toward the woods, their faces wrinkled with worry. I was compelled to go down to the edge of the tents, my gut imploding with grief. All I could envision was his smiling face under his thick glasses as he and Merijn Geerts set a World Record last year of 101 hours, then subsequently quit in solidarity. They sent a message that day to our sport, if not the world, that our humanity is the ultimate goal, not miles and kilometers. Now, the clock was ticking down on him. There was only 45 seconds for him to get to the corral. And then, in a gap in the trees, he appeared. “Ivo,” my voice cracked as I yelled out unexpectedly. “Come, Ivo, come.”

As he rounded a stand of hickory and oak trees, he somehow found another gear inside himself and did his best to sprint. The camp erupted with claps and shouts. “Ivo! Ivo! Ivo!” He crossed the line with mere seconds left on the clock and stumbled backward into the corral. A fellow runner caught him and when the bell rang, pulled him across the start line. Another runner handed him a bottle of water. Their own bottle.

The next 45 minutes seemed like an eternity. But I was in what Hunter S. Thompson called, “Bat Country.” Severely sleep-deprived, I was in a weird frame of mind: delirious, paranoid and frayed at the edges. We all were. But I could make out Ivo’s wife—she was a heap of tears, her hands up to her face. “Can we go get him?” she asked. “He hasn’t made the halfway point.” Nervous conversations ensued and snowballed with each passing second.

Eventually, a hobbling Ivo was brought out of the woods by American Keith VanGraafeiland and Niklas Sjoblom of Sweden. He moved slowly up the slot that curved into the corral, arm in arm with his wife. The applause was the loudest of the race. He appeared drunk yet elated, almost childlike. He pointed out a face. “I remember you,” he said. Then another. “Yes, I remember you.” In the state that I was in, I blamed myself for urging him on at the end of the previous loop. Maybe, if he’d timed out, he wouldn’t be in this state. But the carnage had just begun.

Moments later, I was asked to come to the timing tent. I hoped it was for food. Instead, I was shown the livestream. Japanese champion, Daiki Shibawaki, was on the single track, spinning slowly in small circles, looking down. You just know when you see it. You know. There is no doubt. That person is gone.

Shibawaki, after winning Japan’s team championship, was dubbed by the media “the last samurai standing,” and I had met him and the Japanese team early in the race. They spoke very little English, and since I could speak Japanese (my wife is Japanese), they asked if I would translate for them when needed. I had agreed. Shibawaki had struck me as a tall, proud man. He was quiet and stoic hour after hour as he came in from the cool of the road and the menace of the trail. He had fallen several times but never complained. Now, he needed help.

When I told the Japanese team about his situation, it was as if a tsunami hit them full force. His handler burst into a flood of tears. Her head and shoulders slumped down over her chest. All she could do was repeat his name. I offered to go with her, and Laz told me to ask Shibawaki, called Shiba-san, if he wanted cameras. Laz and his wife, Sandra, made it clear to me that the runner’s dignity was paramount. If he didn’t want cameras on him, they’d make sure there were none.

After his handler and I cleared the corner and entered the woods, we ran. Bounding down the trail directly toward us was Harvey Lewis. He was bleeding from his nose like a stuck bull. Up ahead, lying on his back on the edge of the wood was the Japanese champion. Both knees were bandaged over. Fresh blood oozed from one. Dried blood formed a dark red cauliflower around the other. His elbows were also bloodied and scabbed. His eyes were swimming with the leaves above.

His handler couldn’t even bring herself to touch him. She crumpled at his side and repeated his name over and over, apologizing for her utter failure. The girl who had been so giggly and jocular in camp was now a rag doll, limp and defeated. Shiba-san spoke like they do in movies when someone is on their deathbed. His voice was faint and wispy. “It’s okay,” he told her. “It’s okay.” And with that, he managed to get his hand around her neck. He was comforting her. I was taken by the look on his face of satisfaction and peace. He could die there and die happy, I thought. Or perhaps that was my imagination.

My world is the world of words, books, desks and coffee shops. I consider myself relatively risk averse. I’ve acted out life and death as a theatre actor on stage, but this I couldn’t wrap my head around. Even photographer Howie Stern, who has been around the sport for decades and covered Big’s for years, felt it. “I don’t really have words for how today is playing out,” he would write.

All I could do was tell Shiba-san how much it had moved me to watch him run day-in and day-out, like a true warrior. I told him he had given everything. That he was a true champion. Then, the bell sounded in the distance and another loop was underway. He seemed to hear this and looked to me. I asked him if his brain was working. He nodded and said it was. “Where are you?” I asked. His eyes fluttered for a moment. He looked up at the canopy of trees above him as their arms swayed in the breeze. His eyes returned to me. He said, “Tennessee.” He was going to be okay.

I pulled out my cell and called Laz. Shiba-san was fine with cameras. He had nothing to hide. He was spent and proud he hadn’t quit. That, I learned in the precious time between us, was the real battle—the Rubicon to be crossed.

As soon as he was secured in camp, word spread that there were two more runners down on course. The truth turned out to be one, but he was in bad shape. When Philippine runner Jivee Tolentino was carried in, he had the eyes of a zombie. It was as if they had been glued open. He stared into nothing. The camp got quiet.

The day before, Amanda Nelson of Canada collapsed at the finish line. She had been running near the front of the pack since the beginning. But after the 57th yard, she tapped the personal-best bell and fell to the ground like a sheet. Three loops later, Claire Bannwarth of France dropped, making her the highest-placing female. She had employed the opposite approach and hung near the back. While many were eyeing American backyard phenom 57-year-old Jennifer Russo, these two ladies eclipsed her after she called it at 53 yards. And Angelika Huemer of Austria stopped a yard before that. Bannwarth and Nelson showed impressive strength and will be forces to be reckoned with in the future.

On day four, Shiba-san returned to camp, and we shared a long embrace. In 23 years of being a part of the Japanese community in New York, it was the first time I had ever been hugged by a Japanese man. We told each other that we were brothers for life. And that is a microcosm of what happened countless times during the event for many of those involved, a bonding that can happen through shared suffering.

Eight runners entered the corral to start the 97th loop, and Harvey Lewis sprinted out to the road in a show of strength. The overcast morning protected the runners no more. The sun scorched the clouds away like a bright spear of light. Sweat lined the runners’ arms and legs and blanketed their necks and foreheads. Harvey was bleeding again from his nose. Then, the field dropped to seven. Six. World record-holder Phil Gore struggled in from loop 100. He soon retired from the race. Five. Then Belgian Merijn Geerts timed out 30 seconds from the corral. The last Japanese runner, Terumichi Morishita, stopped after he tied for the 102nd world-record loop. “No more,” he said, ignoring the cheers from the Japanese team to continue. “No more, no more.”

Three runners went deeper—into the heat—on Laz’s notoriously tricky backyard trail. But when Bartosz Fudali of Poland crossed the line after the 103rd loop, he refused to continue. Then there were two: Harvey Lewis and Ihor Verys of Canada.

It had been four and a half days since the first cowbell, and how silly we were to assume that Ihor Verys had the race locked up. But he looked invincible, still turning in 49-minute loops, his subtle, confident smile never fading. Even Laz, in his hourly updates, repeatedly called Harvey “doomed.” But Harvey kept coming in “on time.” He knew this race. He knew his pace. 54 minutes. Rest. Recover. Get to the corral as late as possible. Ihor, conversely, would come 30 seconds early and stand in the middle, bronzed by the late afternoon sun.

Only the careful observer could have caught it. It could have easily slipped by in the frenetic energy of camp. It was a mere flash, but it spoke volumes.

When the whistles came for loop 105, Ihor seemed to pause. I was reminded of a movie and the look on Apollo Creed’s face when Rocky picked himself off the canvas one more time. But Ihor pushed himself up and took his place. Harvey came late, looked at his competitor and flashed a smile. And three loops later, Ihor stopped.

Harvey Lewis, the school teacher from Cincinnati, plant-powered and on the cusp of 50, ran 450 miles in four and a half days. He started 108 times and had countless chances to quit. He’d won. He was…the last runner standing.

The stats are overwhelming and suggest the backyard phenomenon is getting more out of the multi-day runner than ever imagined. As compiled by Benjamin Timoner: 72 runners made 100 miles in 24 hours, 47 of those made 200 miles in 48 hours, 23 made three days and 300 miles and eight made 400.

What does it all mean? Who can say? What started off usual enough morphed into, well, something altogether different. What is, on its face, unfathomably boring turns out to be endlessly watchable, tortuously tantalizing and ultimately inscrutable as we truly plumb the limits of human potential. Confused about it all, I texted friend and ultrarunner Michael Gagliardi. “I just assume you gotta be prepared for death in a field/event like that,” he wrote. “Death or glory. That’s how I wanna go out.”

I wonder how many feel that way. It’s easy to forget how extreme it all is until you see a runner carried in with his eyes bugged out and unblinking. But where would we be without limit seekers? Those that sink into the dark abyss of the ocean on one breath, or the chiseled mountain climbers who know the cost and the crusade to go ever higher and faster. They’ve all lost friends in pursuit of the great depths and the great peaks. Their stories touch the armchair dreamer as much as the intrepid adventurer. What is certain, is that the lure for the edge is sticky. It draws the curious soul today as it did in the days of Homer. And the backyard ultra is without a doubt, a new peak on the horizon whose summit has yet to be reached.